Socialism Spreads Upstate, One Door Knock at a Time

Growing support for public power is fueling the campaigns of a pair of DSA-backed candidates in Westchester County and the Hudson Valley.

Theodore Hamm Jun 9, 2022

Read also: Beyond Con Ed: For New York, Public Power is the Past and the Future

As the June 28 primary nears, the New York City chapter of Democratic Socialists of America is expanding its geographic reach. In addition to defending four assembly incumbents and running candidates for three other seats in the city, NYC-DSA is backing candidates in northern Westchester County and the Hudson Valley.

In Assembly District 95 in Peekskill-Ossining, the DSA’s Vanessa Agudelo is vying for a seat vacated by a 30-year officeholder. And up in Assembly District 103 in New Paltz-Kingston, DSA activist Sarahana Shrestha is trying to topple a 12-term incumbent. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed the entire DSA slate. Agudelo also has the support of the Working Families Party and Cynthia Nixon.

Shrestha says that thus far on the trail she’s gotten an enthusiastic response to the Green New Deal, specifically in favor of the Build Public Renewables Act (BPRA). Agudelo also sees solid support for BRPA in her district, adding that voters in the lower-income region are responding well to Good Cause Eviction (protecting tenants) and the NY Health Act (creating statewide single-payer). 

Sarahana Shrestha and Vanessa Agudelo are both deploying the DSA’s signature campaign playbook — lots of door-knocking and voter contact. 

Shrestha and Agudello are backed by their local DSA chapters. NYC-DSA, the largest DSA chapter in the country with more than 5,000 members, is helping with fundraising and back office support, as well as some canvassing and phone banking. 

“I don’t think we need to get to a point where we have a numerical majority” in the Assembly, DSA Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani told the New Republic. “What we need is a set of socialist organizer electeds who will go into this body, organize it, and ensure they are punching above their weight.”

Regardless of whether they prevail, Shrestha and Agudelo are helping build momentum for passage of the progressive measures, which didn’t prevail in this year’s legislative session because of gamesmanship by Democratic Party leaders. Even if all the DSA candidates succeed, that’s only 10 of roughly 100 Democratic Assembly seats — but their ability to create momentum for progressive legislation could expand exponentially.

Both candidates are deploying the DSA’s signature campaign playbook — lots of door-knocking and voter contact. In northern Westchester, that’s not standard practice. Shrestha’s district, meanwhile, has returned clear majorities for Bernie Sanders, Zephyr Teachout and Cynthia Nixon.

Sarahana Shrestha holding signs advocating for the Build Public Renewables Act. Photo: @mhvdsa on Twitter.

Shrestha is trying to unseat Kingston-based Kevin Cahill, chair of the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Insurance. Asked whether the business-oriented Cahill has “fans” in the district, a local elected official told The Indypendent that the veteran incumbent “has allies, which is different than fans or friends.”

In 2020, the DSA’s Marcela Mitaynes unseated Felix Ortiz, a similarly entrenched assemblymember in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. And Emily Gallagher knocked out a 24-term incumbent, Joe Lentol, in Williamsburg-Greenpoint. Gallagher is now a member of the DSA slate.

Shrestha says that at a March endorsement meeting, Cahill — a former Medicare executive — dismissed BPRA, arguing that “it’s not a climate bill — it’s a bill to change the means of production.” Amid the groundswell of grassroots activism on behalf of BPRA in early June, Cahill suddenly announced his support for the legislation.

Although he may have been trying to make an anti-Marxist joke, Cahill is right that BPRA would remove energy production from private control. But there is no shortage of anger at investor-owned public utilities in the Hudson Valley right now. The rates charged by Central Hudson, a monopoly supplier in the district, have skyrocketed in 2022. As Shrestha points out, those increases have put the squeeze on both individual customers and the district’s many farms.

“Sunshine is great but rainy weather is best for canvassing: more people home, warm welcomes, frequent thanks for showing up… & we recruited two new volunteers at the doors! Join us tomorrow in Ossining or again next weekend!” Tweeted @VanessaBAgudelo on May 7.

Shrestha, a 41-year-old Nepali immigrant and climate activist who lives in Esopus (on the outskirts of Kingston), sees Cahill’s shifting stance on BPRA as the usual Albany song and dance. Like the Democratic leadership, “Cahill wants to have it both ways,” she says. “He now claims to support the bill but he’s done nothing to champion it.”

Agudelo, a 30-year-old immigrant organizer whose parents emigrated from Colombia, similarly faults the “Albany leaders who don’t want to hold corporate interests accountable.” Her district has two power providers, NYSEG and Con Edison. In addition to soaring rates, outages in recent years have disproportionately hit the lowest-income portions of her district.

Elected to the Peekskill City Council in 2017, Agudelo spent her term battling environmental discrimination. The now-shuttered Indian Point nuclear power plant sits on top of two fracked-gas lines — and a group of private providers sought to expand one. Along with other local officials, Agudelo unsuccessfully fought the Cuomo-approved initiative.

Local party leaders didn’t like Agudelo’s criticisms of the lack of affordable housing in new Peekskill developments, she says. Those same figures supported a slate that knocked out Agudelo and other insurgents in 2021. She is now running for the Assembly against two candidates, Ossining Town Supervisor Dana Levenberg and Peekskill-based Colin Smith, a member of the Westchester County Board of Legislators.

Levenberg was outgoing Assemblywoman Sandy Galef’s chief of staff and is running with the latter’s support. While she touts her readiness to fight on behalf of climate-friendly legislation, her platform does not mention BRPA. Smith has a “green economy” at the top of his platform but lacks details regarding any legislation.

“We’re a breath of fresh air,” says Agudelo regarding her door-to-door campaign. Like Shrestha, Agudelo’s team plans to mobilize dozens of volunteers down the stretch. Throughout the Hudson Valley, voters are starting to seize the means of political production.

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